Despite the promise of technology to provide a life of luxury, many of us find ourselves spending a rather large amount of time tending to physical and digital inboxes. Reduce the stress load with this handy guide.
Photo by Esparta.
If you were a worker at any time prior to say the 1980s, you had a very tiny pool of inboxes to manage. If you were important enough in the chain of command you might have a physical inbox at work and receive telephone messages from the office secretary. At home you would receive mail from the postman and another set of phone messages recorded by someone who was at home while you were away — or not recorded at all if no one was home to answer the phone. That was it. Four "inboxes" if you were a busy person and half that if you weren't.
The modern worker on the other hand has a radically bigger pool of inboxes. Most people have physical inboxes, mailboxes, email, voicemail, the inboxes for a variety of social networks and online services, and all of them in multiples.
The following checklist will help you take stock of your inboxes and hopefully reduce them in number.
1. Assess the number of inboxes you actually have. You'll want to have a pen and paper or open a TXT document to keep track:
- How many email inboxes do you have? What are they for? Make sure to include lesser used email account and single use accounts.
- How many voicemail boxes do you have? What are they for?
- How many places at home are areas where things are left for you? These are your home inboxes.
- How many places at work are areas where things are left for you? Theses are your work inboxes.
- What other points of collection do you have? Consider things like the notes feature on your phone, a note pad you keep in your pocket, etc. These things are temporary inboxes that you have to sort and purge at some point in your day.
You may at this point consider rewriting the list to group things together by physical location or purpose. A series of headers across the top of your list might be Work, Home, and any other significant area of inbox accumulation for you like a serious hobby or organisation you belong to.
2. Determine if any inboxes are redundant or unnecessary. Your immediate response might be to protest that none of your inboxes are redundant or you wouldn't have them. Looking at your list critically however might yield a different response. What if you have voicemail on your mobile phone and voicemail on your landline at home? You have two independent voicemail boxes, it's up to you to decide if it's worth the hassle of tending to both of them. Points of consideration:
- Can the people who use a given inbox, be transitioned to using a new inbox?
- Does the inbox serve its intended purpose or original use? If not, can it be retired?
- Does the amount of time spent checking this inbox and tending to it, yield any reward? Again, ask yourself if it can be retired.
3. When possible merge inboxes together. Technology, thought it has given us more to be busy with, has also given us a myriad of ways to merge tools and tasks together and reduce our workload. In the previous step you considered whether or not you could transition the people who use one of your inboxes to use another one. Another tact is to do the merging on the back end and let the computers handle the heavy lifting.
- Can you forward your email to a single address or use that single address to check multiple accounts? Earlier this year we showed you how to use Gmail to manage multiple email accounts.
- When you can't merge an inbox with another inbox or reduce it all together, take steps to make it more effective. If you hate checking voicemail for instance you might consider adding instructions to your voicemail message such as "I check this voicemail box once per day. If this is an emergency please call the main office line at..."
4. Set up a schedule for emptying your inboxes and stick to it. This is a tricky point. People check their inboxes in one of two ways. They either love checking them, think of the intermittent reinforcement of checking a personal email address to see if anything fun has come in or logging into Facebook to see if a friend has sent any communication to you, or hate checking them, think boring corporate voicemail. The solution from both a productivity standpoint and a sanity standpoint is to create a schedule for managing your inboxes and stick to it.
- Consider what time of day is the most efficient and most important time to check each inbox. Group them according to this time.
- Consider where is the most practical time to check the inbox. It might be the most punctual to check your physical mailbox at 10:30 when the postman comes, but if you're at work 30 kilometres away it's hardly practical.
- Create a schedule of inbox maintenance. A potential schedule might be: checking your work inboxes at 10am and again at 4pm before getting ready to go home for the day and checking your personal inboxes once a day at 7pm. Your personal schedule will vary but it's important to create one so that tending inboxes doesn't become primary job.
It isn't always possible to flat out ditch an inbox—no matter how badly you wish to do so!—but by taking the time to assess the inboxes you have, looking for ones that can be trimmed or merged into other boxes, and maintaining a schedule for tending to those inboxes so that you're not stuck in a perpetual loop of trying to keep up with new inputs, you can reduce the stress of having too many inboxes.
If you have your own tips, tricks or inbox horror stories to share, let's hear about them in the comments.